Yet Another Scary Alabama Document: Day 2 of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention

I’m just gonna throw some quotations at you from the main dude presiding over the 1901 constitutional convention, the “honorable” John B. Knox. The 1901 constitution still in effect in Alabama. While certain unsavory bits are no longer enforced, Knox’s comments say a whole lot about the spirit of the document whose purpose was to formally institutionalize white supremacy. I am not kidding, that’s what Knox himself says in no uncertain terms. The proceedings are available at the website for the Alabama State Senate. All of the below comes from Knox’s introductory speech on Day 2 of the convention. Warning: the following is likely to be upsetting and offensive.

And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.

This is our problem, and we should be permitted to deal with it, unobstructed by outside influences, with a sense of our responsibilities as citizens and our duty to posterity.

. . . .


The Southern man knows the negro, and the negro knows him. The only conflict which has, or is ever likely to arise, springs from the effort of ill-advised friends in the North to confer upon him, without previous training or preparation, places of power and responsibility, for which he is wholly unfitted, either by capacity or experience.

When it comes, however, to dealing with the negro, in domestic service, or in a business way, the Southerner is infinitely more indulgent to him than his Northern compatriot.

There came to us a well authenticated story from Kentucky, of an old darkey, who, after the war, influenced by the delusion that the only friends the negro had were in the North, wandered up into Illinois, hoping to find an easy fortune. But here he soon found that while the people had much to say to him about the evils of slavery, and the destiny of his race, every one with whom he did business held him to a strict accountability. Trained, as he was, to the slow movement of the mule in the Southern cornfield and the cotton patch, he could not handle the complicated machinery, or keep pace with the quicker methods of farming in the West, and so he was soon cast adrift. When he asked for help he was told to go to work, and so he wandered, foot-sore and weary, back through Indiana and Ohio until he reached again the old Southern plantation in Kentucky. Finding the planter comfortably seated upon his veranda, the old darkey approached, hat in hand, and asked for something to eat.

“Why, you damned black rascal, what are you stopping here for? Go into the kitchen and tell the cook to give you something to eat.”

“Before God, Master,” the old darkey said, grinning from ear to ear, “them’s the sweetest wordy I’se heard since I left old Dixie.”

The old man was home at last. He was among people who understood him, and whom he understood.


But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law–not by force or fraud. If you teach your boy that it is right to buy a vote, it is an easy step for him to learn to use money to bribe or corrupt officials or trustees of any class. If you teach your boy that it is right to steal votes, it is an easy step for him to believe that it is right to steal whatever he may need or greatly desire. The results of such an influence will enter every branch of society, it will reach your bank cashiers, and affect positions of trust in every department; it will ultimately enter your courts, and affect the administrations of justice.

. . . .

The justification for whatever manipulation of the ballot that has occurred in this State has been the menace of negro domination. After the war, by force of Federal bayonets, the negro was placed in control of every branch of our Government. Inspired and aided by unscrupulous white men, he wasted money, created debts, increased taxes until it threatened to amount to confiscation of our property. While in power, and within a few years, he increased our State debt from a nominal figure to nearly thirty million dollars. The right of revolution is always left to every people. Being prostrated by the effects of war, and unable to take up arms in their own defense, in some portions of this State, white men, greatly in the minority, it is said, resorted to strategemused their greater intellect to overcome the greater number of their black opponents. If so such a course might be warranted when considered as the right of revolution, and as an act of necessity for self-preservation. But a people cannot always live in a state of revolution. The time comes, when, if they would be free, happy and contented people, they must return to a Constitutional form of government, where law and order prevail, and where every citizen stands ready to stake his life and his honor to maintain it.

. . . .

Mississippi is the pioneer State in this movement. In addition to the payment of a poll tax, there it is provided that only those can vote who have been duly registered, and only those can register who can read, or understand when read to them, any clause in the Constitution. The decision as to who are sufficiently intelligent to meet the requirements of the understanding clause is exclusively in the hands of the registrars.

. . . .

It is contended in defense of this provision, that while, in effect, it will exclude the great mass of ignorant negro voters it does not, in terms, exclude them, and applies generally to all classes of voters, without reference to their race, color or previous condition of servitude; that all negroes who were voters prior to January 1st, 1867, of whom, it is claimed, there were quite a number, could vote, and the descendants, whether slaves or not, of these free negroes were entitled to vote, and that these were quite numerous. And on the other hand, that white people born in other countries–emigrants, who cannot read and write, could not vote, nor could white people who were unable to vote in the State in which they lived prior to 1867, unless they were able to read and write. If it be said that this exception permits many more white people to vote than negroes, the answer was that this would be equally true of any proper qualifications which might be proposed. It would be true of an educational qualification, and it would be true of a property qualification, the validity of which has never been questioned.

These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because it is said that the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race, but on account of his intellectual and moral condition. There is a difference, it is claimed with great force, between the uneducated white man and the ignorant negro. There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro. Before the art of reading and writing was known, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon had established an orderly system of government, the basis in fact of the one under which we now live. That the negro on the other hand, is descended from a race lowest in intelligence and moral preceptitions of all the races of men. As was remarked by the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Williams vs. Mississippi (170 U.S. 213), quoting the Supreme Court of Mississippi: “Restrained by the Federal Constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the Convention discriminates against its characteristics and the offense to which its criminal members are prone.”

Is your blood boiling? Mine is.

I am glad that the website for the Alabama State Senate makes available to the public the 1901 constitution, Alabama’s sixth, as well the proceedings (though it would be helpful if amendments were dated). I do wish, however, that there were more momentum behind the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. If you’re interested, you can find out more at the group’s Facebook group.


One thought on “Yet Another Scary Alabama Document: Day 2 of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention

  1. Yikes. This will come in handy next time I have to make an argument about covert v. overt racism, and institutionalized racism.

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